For years, I’ve wanted to visit Lamar Valley in the winter, especially to see wolves. Located in the remote northeast corner of Yellowstone National Park, the Lamar Valley is America’s version of the Serengeti. Or so I’ve read. And Highway 212, the only road that’s open to vehicular traffic during Yellowstone’s winter season, just happens to travel through the valley.
After obsessively watching weather forecasts during a particularly stormy winter season in the Bitterroot Valley, Alan and I finally see a window of opportunity. Road reports are good, there’s little snow forecasted and Yellowstone National Park’s brutal winter temperatures have moderated to above 0 F. It’s time to roll.
We’re lucky that Gardiner, Montana, northern gateway to Yellowstone National Park, is only a five-hour drive from our home—a little more if Alan and I take the scenic route through the Big Hole Valley, which of course we do.
If you’re flying to Montana to visit the Lamar Valley, fly into Bozeman, then rent a four-wheel-drive car for your adventure.
We arrive in Gardiner in the late afternoon for a one-night stay at the Best Western Plus Mammoth Hot Springs. The plan is to spend the next day exploring the Lamar Valley before driving to Grey Cliffs Lodge for a romantic Valentine’s Day getaway.
Park lodging at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel & Cabins would have been our preferred choice but the hotel is currently closed for renovations during the 2017 and 2018 winter seasons.
After discussing dining options with the Best Western hotel clerk, Alan and I walk a couple of snowy blocks to the recommended hamburger joint. It’s closed. And so are several of the hotels that we pass. If you’re planning a visit to Gardiner in the winter, it’s a good idea to confirm reservations before arriving. And, yes, we did find dinner at the Yellowstone Mine Restaurant located next door to the Best Western.
The next morning we fuel up at the hot buffet of the Yellowstone Mine Restaurant—free breakfast coupon provided by Best Western. And then it’s a short drive through Gardiner to the park.
After driving through the iconic Teddy Roosevelt Arch, it’s as if Yellowstone is trying to prove to us that it is indeed America’s Serengeti. We haven’t entered through the park’s guard gate and already large numbers of buffalo, elk and pronghorns are visible as they graze on the hillside below Electric Peak. Take a look at the web cam. You might see them, too.
After a friendly chat with the park ranger, we’re on our way up the road to Mammoth Hot Springs. Since we only have one day to visit Lamar Valley, Alan and I agree that this trip is a reconnaissance mission for future adventures. The goal is to drive to Cooke City for lunch, taking it slowly and stopping at all the turnoffs, before retracing the drive back to Gardiner.
We’ll save any snowshoeing, winter hiking or prolonged wildlife watching for another time. Unfortunately this also means a walk on the boardwalk of the Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces will wait for our next visit.
At Mammoth Hot Springs, Grand Loop Road, Highway 212, turns east. Although there’s lots of snow on the ground, the road is mostly in good shape. Because this is the only winter road access for Cooke City citizens, ploughs clear the road during daylight hours.
There’s plenty to see along the road before reaching Lamar Valley. The pavement climbs and weaves its way through the Gallatin Range with views of the Yellowstone River to the north and Blacktail Deer Plateau to the south. Bison are everywhere, including along the road, so it pays to adhere to Yellowstone’s 35-mile-per-hour speed limit.
When we see groups of wildlife watchers set up with scopes in a turnout, Alan always pulls in, if there’s room to park. Although spotters have the reputation for being friendly, we don’t find that to be the case.
The plowing for Grand Loop Road ends at Tower-Roosevelt. In the summer, the road loops around to Tower Fall, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Norris and back to Mammoth Hot Springs.
Our route continues east on the Northeast Entrance Road, Highway 212. After Slough Creek, Lamar Valley opens up in a large U-shape thanks to the carving action of ancient glaciers. This is the heart of America’s Serengeti and a wildlife watcher’s heaven.
A couple of cars stop in front of us to watch big horn sheep on a rocky hillside. After maneuvering past them, Alan stops at the closest pullout, and then we walk back to photograph the sheep. Park guidelines request that visitors do not stop their vehicles in the road.
Where the road hugs Soda Butte Creek, we come across another pullout with cars. Three buffalo struggling through deep snow have attracted photographers and wildlife watchers.
Don’t startle wildlife by talking loudly or slamming car doors. Remember you are a visitor in their habitat.
The road climbs again as it leaves the Lamar Valley and Yellowstone National Park. After Cooke City, Highway 212 becomes the Beartooth Highway, one of America’s most scenic drives. But in the winter, plowing stops at Cooke City meaning the only access to the outside world for town residents is the journey back through the park to Gardiner.
Although we had planned to stop for lunch, the drive to Cooke City has gone quicker than expected. So Alan and I enjoy a cup of coffee and mid-morning snack while watching snowmobiles buzz up and down the street. Miles of trails make Cooke City a prime snowmobiling destination. Now we’re tempted to return for a guided snowmobile tour.
Avoid a winter drive to Lamar Valley on Friday, Saturday or Sunday when cars and trucks pulling snowmobiles are traveling to and from Cooke City for a weekend of fun.
The views are just as stunning on our return back through the remote northeastern corner of Yellowstone National Park. Although Alan and I didn’t see any wolves, we’ve lost count of the number of bison that have crossed the road in front of us. After about two hours of driving, we’re back at Gardiner.
To really spot wolves, I recommend following Travel for Wildlife’s advice to book a Lamar Valley wolf watching tour.
There’s just enough time to drive on to Grey Cliffs for a gourmet dinner and a 3-night Valentine’s getaway. But the northeastern corner of Yellowstone—and Cooke City—is calling our names. We’ll definitely return for another boomer travel adventure.
Did you visit Lamar Valley in the winter? Or maybe you’ve enjoyed another time of the year in this corner of Yellowstone. Come join the conversation at the My Itchy Travel Feet page on Facebook. Or send us an email with your thoughts.
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